Social Impact Authors: How & Why Author Chris Carlisle Is Helping To Change Our World

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Have Fun — Life is too short to not have fun following your passion. Laugh often, cry on your own time, and enjoy the ride!

As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Carlisle.

Chris Carlisle is the former Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks. Before that, Chris coached at such notable colleges as the University of Arkansas, the University of Tennessee, and the University of Southern California. Since retiring from football, Chris has become a sought-after motivational speaker, incorporating experiences from his professional and personal life into each one of his presentations. His upcoming book, Move or Die: Creating a Game-Plan from Stuck to Significance, is available for purchase on Amazon.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I was born in Chicago, Illinois. Then the story gets hard. I was diagnosed with a birth defect of both legs. The doctor told my parents I would never run like the other children. My parents responded by saying, “We’ll see about that.” Because I had issues walking, and because I had two older brothers, I tried to keep up with I soon fell and knocked both of my front teeth out, soon after they came in.

Because of this, I developed a speech impediment, which in elementary school led a speech therapist to tell my mother, “He’ll never be a public speaker”. Her response was, “We’ll see about that.

The orthopedic doctors were right, I never ran like the other kids … I ran better, well enough to earn a college football scholarship and the speech therapist was wrong, in that, I have spent my career speaking and working with athletes, teams, and doing motivational and teaching events.

I ended up being the middle child, out of five. We were taught to never accept things as they are, that through hard work and dedication you can change the world. And to always dream beyond your grasp.

When I was 8 years old, I told my friend Nate Low, while we were playing football in his backyard, that I would one day win a Super Bowl. And 40 years later, I did.

When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or change your life? Can you share a story about that?

Because of my physical and speaking issue, I remember reading a book, in elementary school, on the life of Ludwig von Beethoven. And was inspired by the way that he overcame the loss of his hearing, and still made life-changing music.

I figured if Beethoven could continue on his path after losing his greatest tool (his hearing), I could achieve my dreams of playing football one day.

And I did.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or takeaway did you learn from that?

Not sure one would consider this “funny” but it was a mistake that changed the arc of my career.

I had just started coaching at Subiaco Academy, which is a college preparatory school, run by the Benedictine monks. It was June, and I had some of the local kids, it was a boarding school, with most of the students living away from campus during the summer, in to do some work in the weight room.

Before we started training, I plugged this huge chicken house fan, that stood 4 feet high and 4 feet wide with 4 huge stainless-steel blades. When I plugged it in the old wires and the plug-in sparked some awful. I thought to myself, I need to find a switch on the fan because I’m too smart to get electrocuted on my first day.

After the workout, I sent the boys out to the football field with some footballs.

I stayed in the weight room to shut the room down and lock up. As I came to the fan, which was open on three sides, with only a screen over the front, I hesitated to unplug it, remembering the sparks. I began to look for a shut-off switch on the huge motor that pulled the fan belt. As I looked on the near side, I didn’t see one so I leaned in to look over the top of the motor … yep … I got hit with an 8-inch-wide stainless steel fan blade.

It opened my head up from my forehead down below my eye, along the side of my nose. By the grace of God, it jumped over my eye, but its eggshelled my skull, broke my orbital bone, and left a 7-inch opening from the middle of my forehead down to my left cheek.

After surviving the hit, but living up to my hard-headed nature, I didn’t get knocked down. I was taken to the local hospital where the doctor uncovered my head, which was covered by a towel. He quickly covered it back up and said, “We need to get him to Fort Smith (Arkansas)”. The nurse said, “Should I call flight for life?” and the doctor responded, “He doesn’t have that kind of time.”

So, they threw me in the back of an ambulance, and we headed west to Fort Smith.

I don’t remember anything for a long time. The story my plastic surgeon tells when they got me to Fort Smith was that the neurosurgeon had looked at me and felt I was just a deep laceration. When the plastic surgeon began asking me questions a blood clot blew out the opening in my head, thank God again because without the opening the clot would have killed me, and I went into a grand mal seizure.

The plastic surgeon jumped on my chest as I fell back on the exam table and four attendants tried to hold me down. The nurse yelled at the doctor that he had no gloves on as his hand was in my head, the doctor said, “If I let go this boy will die.”

Well, he did hold on, and I didn’t die!! The doctor had to pick skull fragments from my brain, the brain sack was torn, and I was in bad shape. But because of great doctors, the grace of God, and my “We’ll see about that” attitude I healed.

This was now August and football was about to start. The neurosurgeon went through a checklist before he could clear me. He said not to contact because the titanium was still not stable. Contact could cause intracranial pressure and I would die. I couldn’t lift weights because the strain would cause intracranial pressure and I would die. I couldn’t hold in a sneeze because … yeah … I would die. I had to use a stool softener … or I would die. I was checking off all these. No problem. Then he got to the end of the list. “And you can’t yell … because it will cause intracranial pressure … and you will die.

Check …. HUH? No yelling?

I quickly checked my coaching toolbox only to find I had one tool … a big ole sledgehammer “YELLING”. How was I going to be a head football coach at a new job, and not be able to yell? For the first 8 years of my coaching career, I had been called the “designated yeller”. Vince Lombardi, Woody Hayes, and Bobby Knight were all successful — in my mind — because they yelled.

The first day of summer training camp came and I spoke to the team in a little more than a whisper. And for the first time in my career, something happened. The players didn’t lean back in response to my “coaching”, they leaned in. They wanted to hear what I had to say.

It took a chicken house fan opening my head up, to understand that a coach is just a teacher. The athlete wanted to learn. Not to be yelled at. The more I taught the better the team became. It was the changing point of my career.

Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?

I believe everyone wants to become successful. Success is different for all people. For some, it’s about owning more toys in the end. For others, it’s helping the people nearest to them. For others, it’s about opening a path to help others find their way.

But along the way, many people become “stuck”. And they lose their drive to make the changes they always dreamt of.

Then they become “stagnate” in that they get weighed down by the cost of life itself. And then professionally, ideologically, and spiritually they “die”.

And 50 years later we bury them.

This book is the answer to the question: “So, now what?” You are a high school student and you’ve been working to get to college so long that once you get to college you say, “So, now what?” Or it’s the person who is in a dead-end job and they don’t see a way out, “So, now what?” Or a person has a chance to change jobs, “So, now what?” They get the job, “So, now what”? They have ideas on how to change their industry, “So, now what”? They eventually become a CEO and they look around and they say, “So, now what?”

This book is designed to get people from Stuck to Successful and then to Significant.

Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

My swimming lesson story (Chapter 3 — THE DEEP END) sticks out as a starting point. I failed Beginners III swim lessons three times. My parents pulled me out because they didn’t want to embarrass me, as my little sister who was three years younger than I was, would catch up to me.

I could swim … as long as I was in the shallow end or by the ropes. But failed each time because I would jump into the deep end of the pool and swim to the side.

The chapter is about trusting yourself first. I didn’t trust that physics would bring me back to the top of the water. I didn’t trust that the water in the shallow end and the deep end were the same. I didn’t trust that I would be able to swim 20 feet to the end. I didn’t trust the four guards, a couple of which had swum in the Olympic qualifying meet, and were collegiate all-Americans, who were working the pool for summer money, would jump in and save me.

If we don’t trust ourselves, we will never accomplish anything.

Self-doubt is the single greatest career killer there is. If we don’t believe in ourselves how will anybody else? We need to understand our strengths and weaknesses and understand what our passion is and follow it.

When we learn to trust ourselves then we can trust others. Once this happens those around us will trust us.

Once we have this cycling through our lives, we can make tremendous progress as we move towards our goals and dreams.

What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?

I always thought my reason to be on earth was to win football games.

I was pretty good at it too. I worked with teams that went on to win High School State championships. Junior College National championships. Division I college National championships and I went to two Super Bowls, winning one.

As I sat on the tarmac after winning Super Bowl 48, I was finishing up the off-season program that my staff and I had put together during the season for the upcoming off-season. It was February, the off-season didn’t start until the middle of April, and it was less than 24 hours since I had accomplished my life goal, that being winning a Super Bowl.

Something was wrong. I had gotten over the win in less than 24 hours yet the loss vs Texas in the BCS National Championship in the Rose Bowl nine years earlier still ate at me.

I got home and I thought about and pondered and questioned and then my 4th epiphany hit me, I wasn’t in the game for wins. The game was a vehicle that I used to accomplish my greatest passion. To help others to achieve their goals and dreams.

Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

In the book, I talk about working with Russell Wilson. We (Seattle Seahawks) drafted him in the 3rd Round of the NFL draft. He was not the prototypical NFL quarterback. He wasn’t 6’5” and he didn’t drop back and sit in the pocket.

He was almost 5’11 … almost … and he was a game-changer because he extended plays and then could throw the ball on a dime.

As a rookie, we sat down, and I asked him about his goals. He said, “Coach C, I’m going to be the starting quarterback.”

I smiled and said, “Good, I don’t have a dog in the hunt, I just want the best for the team.” Russell laughed and said, “I just need a chance.” And I responded, “We all take our chances, trust yourself and you will be fine.” He got up and said, “That’s what I needed to hear.”

He ended up being the starting QB as a rookie. The next year we sat down, and he said, “We’re going to win the Super Bowl this year.” I smiled and said, “I trust you!” He laughed and said, “That’s what I needed to hear”.

And we won the Super Bowl that year.

Now Russell was pre-wired in the right way. He is an amazing worker and a great leader, but even the best need to be reminded that they need to trust themselves and that they are trusted.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

The biggest thing that our communities and politicians can do is to improve our educational system. Too many people are left behind because they are being forced to memorize items that they will never use. The expansion of trade schools and specialized learning schools can help “academically challenged students” in the system. These children get bored and leave the education system because it doesn’t fit them. Some students think in numbers, others in words, while others in sound and touch.

When these specialized schools can take them farther along their path, rather than teaching archaic subjects that are out of touch with current systems.

When we help students understand who they are. Trust themselves and given a plan to move forward on their own paths we will find that the tide will rise in this country. As the tide of focused and energized thinkers and doers rises our standards of living will rise because now, they are living and working towards accomplishing their dreams, not the dreams of an outdated education system.

As an example, my son went to elementary school in an area outside of Los Angeles. Because there was no money in the budget, there were no physical education teachers, no art teachers, no choir or band teachers, no automotive, wood, metal, or working classes.

There were just the basics. What happens if a kid wasn’t “wired” towards the “basics”. Then they flunked out or left school because it didn’t fit them. Who knows the kids that have been left out of the “American dream” because their minds couldn’t conceptualize numbers?

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is allowing each person to bring their strengths to bear to accomplish the goal of the group. Not everyone is a lead singer, not everyone can play guitar or a drum or a piano. But when the sum of the whole is greater than the sum of the individual. You have magic.

I didn’t think that one up. That’s Bruce Springsteen’s concept of 1 + 1 = 2. That’s what happens every day. We get up, we go to work, we pay the bills, and we go home. But when 1 + 1 = 3 … that’s where you rub two sticks together and make fire. When you take the skills of each individual and meld them together to make something better.

They don’t have to be the best in each area. They just must be led in such a way that allows them to make everyone around them better than they would be by themselves.

What are your “5 things I would pass on to someone who is just starting” and why. Please share a story or example for each. (NOTE: I changed the question — I think the lessons I have learned “the hard way” can help others … it’s similar to your question but maybe more useful)

1). Be Humble:

When I graduated college, I thought I knew everything. I was arrogant that I didn’t even apply for an assistant coaching position.

I felt I know all the answers, so why would I want to sit behind someone who couldn’t know more than I did? I did get a head coaching job. After the first four games, we were 1–3, and all three losses were my fault, and the one win I attribute to the players, outplaying their coaching.

On the bus ride back home after our third loss, I had my first epiphany: I don’t know a thing about coaching a football team.

I left that job after one season, we ended up winning four games, but I needed to learn. For the next 10 years I learned a lot of football, but more about myself as a person (see the chicken house fan story).

2). Your Immediate Work Is Your Resume:

Thankfully I was taught to have a great work ethic as I grew up (Do the job right the first time so you don’t have to do it again) by my parents. As I look back at my career, I am proud that I have had only one job interview, and that was for my first job.

After my first job people came and found me and wanted what I brought to the table. I tell people all the time to stop neglecting the work right in front of them, looking for their next landing spot.

When you go to work, give 100% of yourself to that work. When that happens only good will follow you.

3). Loyalty

Again, another trait that I learned while I grew up that paid off in buckets.

Before I got my first job, I knew I was going to hire and fire people. It’s part of the working world. I went to Jerry Pitzer, who was an assistant football coach and track coach at Chadron State College (my alma mater). I asked Coach Pitzer how he would find the best person for a job opening.

Jerry sat back in his chair and said, “That’s simple. You look for three things. First, loyalty to you and the organization. Second, great work ethic. Third, knowledge in the area you are hiring.” I asked why specifically those three things, in that order.

He smiled and said, “That’s simple too. Loyalty is the most important. It’s first because you can’t teach it, and if a person is not loyal it will cause an upheaval in your entire organization. Work ethic is second because you need to have people who are willing to work to build a program. Work Ethic is somewhat teachable, in that you can keep loading work onto each person’s plate. It will become very clear who can work and who can’t, at which time you make a change.

The last thing is knowledge. You can teach them what you want them to know. One of the worst hires is to bring in someone who knows “everything”. These people are unwilling and unable to be swayed because they are so focused on pushing their agenda. They want your job but aren’t willing to put in the work and take the blame when stuff goes bad.”

I used these three criteria during my entire career.

4). Learning Never Ends

If you think you know everything, you actually know nothing. I’m a “process guy”. This means I’m always trying to figure out how things work.

And then I tear them down and figure out how I can do it better. After I find one answer, five more questions spring out of that one answer.

This can either exasperate you or it can inspire you. For me, this process is my sweet spot! I love to see how things work and how they can be stretched and expanded or even eliminated in some cases. I am constantly challenging myself and others on what we, or they, or I think. The one thing I won’t do is “chase a gimmick”. This is nothing but trying to keep up with the Joneses. It’s the old adage, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. This is where I tear an idea apart and find out its why and its issues. To some, this takes too long. They are in such a hurry to be in front that they will throw money and effort and relationship’s away trying to be “that person”.

I did this with my training program. I took what I knew, and it all looked good. But it was too big to fit into the world that I was trying to use it. It was like the first electric cars. They needed so many batteries there was barely room for a seat. And then to compound the problem the batteries drained too quickly.

I took the training information that I had in hand and broke it down. It took nearly ten years to finally boil it down to the smallest element. “Football is based on movement. Those who move faster, more efficiently, more explosively, and with great power will be more successful.”

Once I figured this out and built a program to encompass my needs, I went from a coach who lost more than I won to one that one a championship at every level of competitive football.

I only could this because I kept learning and kept questioning the smartest people in the profession. I wasn’t worried about asking a “dumb question” because if I didn’t know, it was not dumb. Once I found that piece of information it could allow me to take a step forward, or it could allow me to jump twenty-five steps forward because it was the missing link to other ideas.

I traveled to speak to Steve Javorek in Kansas, Bryan Bailey and Mike Arthur in Nebraska, Mike Woicik, Tom Shaw and Harold Nash in New Orleans and Foxboro, Vince Anderson in Knoxville, Loren Segrave in Atlanta, the Olympic training center in Colorado, and clinics in California, Texas, Arkansas, Colorado. To learn everything, I could.

When things became redundant, I figured I could start to tear them down. When I found one answer, I had relationships with people that were smarter in that area than I was.

Eventually, I was working with athletes and developing programs that combined aspects from different disciplines. And that’s where I found that there was a better way to train athletes. But it couldn’t have happened if I had not continued to learn from the best.

5). Have Fun

Life is too short to not have fun following your passion. Laugh often, cry on your own time, and enjoy the ride!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” — Dali Lama

Life is tough. Nothing is assured. Becoming who you want to become is up to you and it has its setbacks. Those setbacks don’t need to stop you. Randy Pausch, who wrote, “The Last Lecture”, and I paraphrase, the walls that are set in front of you are not there to stop you, they are there to see how bad you want what you are pursuing, the walls are for the other people.

I was born with a physical handicap, I developed a speech impediment, and I was diagnosed with cancer. Any of these could have stopped me on my path to becoming who I was supposed to be. But my parents, “We’ll see about that” attitude pushed me forward, over, around, and under those “walls” that were set up to stop me.

But the thing I did do was learn from each “wall”. They made me stronger than I was before encountering them. So, I didn’t “suffer”, I persevered through things that have stopped others.

Now I get to talk with other people about these encounters and how I got through them, and what I learned. Hopefully, it will help them to push through when they don’t think they can or provide them with a key to unlocking the doors in the “walls” to make their path easier than mine was.

We just can’t afford to stop when we have the “pain”, we need to move forward … always.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I have always thought the world of Oprah Winfrey. I bring her up twice in my book. First in the way she persevered through her struggles as she grew up and got into the acting profession. And second, as a bridge-builder for others to accomplish their dreams and goals.

She epitomizes my definition and differences of Success and Significance.

Success occurs when you accomplish your dreams. Significance is what occurs when you help others accomplish their dreams.

Ms. Winfrey has done both. She is successful in her career and now she helps others on their way.

Pretty cool!!

How can our readers further follow your work online?

My recently launched website, It has several motivational sections as well as the opportunity to have me come speak to your group, team, business, or corporation. But also, to work one-on-one with me to help those who need a push to get back on track to accomplish their dreams and goals.

I work as a coach, I’m not a therapist. I give my clients the truth and give them ways to keep moving towards along their path.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Social Impact Authors: How & Why Author Chris Carlisle Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.